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June 28, 2014

Behind the Scenes: Microsoft’s Costas Syrmos

As head of Microsoft’s creative lab, Costas Syrmos gets to play in a grown-up version of a digital sandbox.

Experimenting with different ideas and content, he figures out the right mix of technology, art, and Microsoft know-how to create inspiring projects. The recent “Arc of Wonder” project,  which harnessed the power of 50 Lumia 1020 smartphones to capture 30,000 photos across Manhattan, is just one example. Here are more.


We recently had a chat with Costas to learn more about his job.

My internal vision of The Lab contains humans in white coats and bubbling liquids. Can you give our readers the real picture – why does it exist and what do you do?
The vision for The Lab is pretty straightforward – to create stories that enable people to imagine what the brand is becoming.

Over the past few years, we have experimented with content and ideas — from sending devices to space to taking photos of Earth, to looking into the magic of how our products are made. Ideas like that are all about satisfying our curiosity and stretching our imagination, and that’s what the Lab is about. Our devices are incredible pieces of technology and we try to utilize that to explore their potential and create great stories.

How did you come to work at The Lab?
About three years ago, I was part of a team called Brand Studio. It was an incredible, creative team whose sole purpose was to completely redesign the brand and push the boundaries of how we market ourselves. Some really incredible work came out of the studio, from beautiful product ads to cutting-edge brand leadership initiatives – brand magazine, new stationery, impactful tone-of-voice guidelines and, of course, films that tell wonderful stories. I started experimenting with film and storytelling at the time and that ultimately set the foundation for the Lab.

What does a day in the life of Costas Syrmos look like?
Every day is completely different. I have three young kids, so I quickly learned to adapt to the unpredictability of everyday life. We are a big company, and of course there are days when we need to focus on the day-to-day stuff – meetings, processes, approvals.

But it is equally important to leave some headspace for things that excite not only The Lab team, but also the audiences we are trying to reach. The best way to do that is to compartmentalize: Do the things that need to be completed, but also go out and see what’s happening in the world. Talk to awesome creators, bounce ideas and get excited about things.

The Centerfold magazine partnership really demonstrated how powerful the Lumia is as a photographic tool. What other industries should take note and consider using Lumias in their line of work?
Centerfold was an amazing partnership and something that was never done before. An entire high-end fashion publication shot with a Lumia 1020 cover to cover is pretty incredible. In terms of photography, there are some fantastic projects happening throughout the company that really push the boundaries of our technology.

Adventures with National Geographic and adrenaline-fueled shoots with Red Bull are things that come to mind. However, there are also a lot of projects and collaborations that move beyond photography and really demonstrate the essence of empowerment. They include Mission 31, where an underwater habitat is powered by Lumia devices, and the partnership with Delta Airlines, where flight attendants are using the Lumia 1520 for in-flight services.


At The Lab, we see technology as an enabler. The Lumia dress we did, for example, was an interesting way to marry technology with fashion outside of photography. At the moment, we are doing some really interesting stuff around moving image with the Lumia 930 for next month.

What are you most proud of while working at The Lab?
There is a lot of care in everything we do, and a sense of pride and satisfaction when we hear peoples’ responses to our work. I can pretty much talk to you about every single thing we have done over the years, but there is one piece of content that is really close to my heart.

Last summer, I was asked to create the opening film for the keynote presentation at the Lumia 1020 launch event. The brief was to create something emotional that really sets the tone for what the world was about to see. So we did this little film called History of Photography. After the keynote, people came up to me and started talking about how they were really moved by the film. Those kinds of reactions give us a sense of purpose and motivate us to do what we do.

Is there anyone that you’d love to work with that you haven’t already?
The list is endless — filmmakers, photographers, developers, industrial designers, makers, thinkers and so on. For every idea, we try to find the people with the right skills and the abilities (and a little bit of madness) to bring it to life.

The “Arc of Wonder” project went down fantastically with readers of Conversations – how did that concept come about and what lengths did you have to go to, to make it happen?
The Arc of Wonder is actually the second project we did with filmmaker Paul Trillo. It is an example of what I was describing earlier about finding the right people to bounce off ideas and bring the Lab vision to life.

The Lumia 1020 is an incredible piece of technology and when you hold it in your hand, there is always a “what if” question at the back of your head. The first time we played with the 41mp sensor we thought, “What if we multiplied this incredible zoom several times with one device?” And of course 41 x 41 was born.

So as a follow-up, we started talking about using multiple cameras to behave as one. We went through several concepts and ended up with a mobile rig that captures the world in a different way than the traditional “bullet” time examples we had seen.

The team worked with an amazing Microsoft developer evangelist, Jesus Aguilar, who did his magic and created an app that controls all 50 devices as one through a Surface tablet. That enabled us to capture all these fantastic moments. This was a very experimental project so there was a lot of trial and error until the final result.

Where would you like to see Lumia appearing that it hasn’t already? I hear there’s a maiden space flight taking place this year….
In the next few months, you will see both Lumia and Nokia X really demonstrating the partnering of technology with everyday life — fashion, sports, art.  We did send the Nokia Pureview 808 to space a few years back to take a photo of the Earth, so you never know.

What smartphone do you use and what’s your favorite feature or app?
I use a Lumia 1520. I just love the big screen and how you can fit all those apps in one space and still be able to glance at all the information as they happen.

Now that Nokia Devices and Services and Microsoft are one, what future opportunities can you see before you?
There are a lot of incredibly smart, creative people in Microsoft, and the idea of empowerment is an invitation to push things even further. We are really looking forward to being part of the culture and contribute to some of the amazing creativity that’s happening. Devices, tablets, Xbox are all coming together — there are going to be some really cool stories coming out.